46 pages • 1 hour readNilo Cruz
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Anna in the Tropics, a two-act play by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Set against the evocative backdrop of a cigar factory in Florida during the Prohibition Era, the poetic language and emotional depth of the play bring to life a dramatic episode in the lives of a Cuban family living and working in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, Florida, in 1929. At this time in history, tensions between old traditions and new ways flared up regularly, and in Ybor City, the threat of new, mechanical cigar-rolling machines looms over the factory workers, who roll cigars by hand, in the traditional way. Also in danger is the tradition of the lector, who reads out loud to the cigar rollers to break the tedium and to pass the time. Listening to the lector is sometimes the closest thing to a formal education cigar-rollers may have experienced, so when this tradition ends, in 1931, an informal method of learning dies with it.
Audience members first meet Santiago, in his late 50s, at a cockfight with his half-brother, Cheché. While Cheché and Santiago gamble, Ofelia, Santiago’s wife, and their two daughters wait at the harbor in Tampa for a ship to arrive, a ship carrying their new lector, Juan Julian. The women admire Juan Julian’s photograph and penmanship while they wait, and the audience learns, through the first impressions of the three women, that Juan Julian is handsome and debonair.
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Santiago owns a cigar factory in Ybor City. He has a weakness for betting on the cockfights and drinking illegally to excess. At the start of the play, Santiago loses money while gambling and borrows more from his half-brother, Cheché, promising him part of the factory as collateral. This decision, made in haste, is not a wise one, as Cheché is a man embittered by disappointment in love and life, and he proves himself to be an untrustworthy and unstable villain by the end of the play. Cheché’s difficult personality and his inability to cope with events and individuals who remind him of his ex-wife’s unfaithfulness lead him to make some choices that violently impact the lives of Santiago and his family.
Santiago and his wife, Ofelia, have a somewhat untraditional marriage, despite Santiago’s ostensible role as the head of his household. Ofelia seems to understand that she is actually the one in charge, but Santiago clings to his masculinity all the while, indulging in gambling and drinking, much to the exasperation of Ofelia. Their daughters, Marela, twenty-two, and Conchita, thirty-eight, have struggles of their own to endure: Marela lives at home with her parents, often playing the role of peacekeeper when Ofelia and Santiago argue. Though her dreamy and romantic personality keeps her optimistic, she sometimes feels trapped by the drudgery of her work as a cigar roller at her father’s factory. Only Juan Julian, the lector, with his love stories and his elevated language, seems to understand what she wants from her life and from the world at large.
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Conchita may be the unofficial protagonist of the play, as her character and her marriage guide much of the action. She is unhappily married to the unfaithful Palomo, and though she loves him and desires him, Conchita decides to take a lover herself, as both husband and wife understand that divorce is out of the question. Conchita seduces Juan Julian, whose sensitivity and passionate temperament are what she wants from her own husband. Palomo learns about the affair from Conchita, and they discuss it openly; at first, Palomo rages with jealousy, but later, he realizes that he too can be sensitive to Conchita and together, they can have an enjoyable and happy relationship, if he takes the time to learn about how she needs to be loved.
In the meantime, while Conchita and Juan Julian have an affair, and Palomo fumes in anger and envy, Santiago and Ofelia work through their own difficulties. Encouraged by Ofelia, Santiago reengages with his leadership role at the factory, and he pays Cheché back in cash rather than turn over part of the factory to honor the gambling debt. At the same time, Santiago rejects Cheché’s efforts to modernize their cigar industry, leaving Cheché feeling powerless and angry. Cheché’s frustration finds an outlet when he begins his lascivious pursuit of young Marela as an expression of his own lack of power and agency in his own life. She forcefully rejects his advances, but later, after a factory party celebrating the new cigar with the name Anna Karenina where Marela has worn a costume to look like the title character, Cheché sees Juan Julian kiss Marela tenderly on her face. Cheché loses control at this point, assaulting Marela in the darkness.
The next day, as everyone is cleaning up after the party, Marela enters wearing her long coat from her costume of the night before. She speaks of wanting to be still, confusing Ofelia, and Juan Julian notices her coat as he begins reading of a dueling scene in Anna Karenina. Cheché enters, pulls out a gun, and shoots Juan Julian twice, killing him. Three days later, Marela is still wearing the long coat, and the factory workers are back to work rolling the cigars, only this time in silence. Palomo offers to read in the place of the dead lector, and he stares meaningfully at Conchita while reading out loud from Anna Karenina, having taken the role of lector both literally and figuratively, meeting the needs of the cigar workers who want him to fill the silence and for his wife who wants him to listen and to love her like she needs to be loved.
The poetic language of Juan Julian and his explanations of the power of literature combine to make him one of the most powerful characters in the play, despite the fact that he is the least dynamic. His stable presence is one the audience can always rely on, much like the factory workers do when they listen to him read in his enchanting voice. His death is shocking and violent, and feels like a death of art itself. Cheché, with his obsession with machines and progress, along with his deep heartache, is a villain, but a pathetic one that invites pity as well as anger. Anna in the Tropics, full of heartfelt emotion, may be a testament to the playwright’s own troubled experience accepting the fact that “[a]fter 1931, the lectors were removed from the factories, and what remained of the cigar rollers consisted of low-paid American workers who operated machines. The end of a tradition,” a fact he mentions in his playwright’s note at the start of the play. Fortunately for Palomo, Conchita, Marela, Santiago and Ofelia, and fortunately for the audience, Juan Julian’s legacy of literature is a tradition that will live on forever.